February 1, 2007

Linux Guitar Project is not a solo act

Author: Tina Gasperson

Artistic geeks often find creative ways to combine technology and art. A love for good software and beautiful guitars is what inspired Canadian luthier Mark Kett to begin the Linux Guitar Project.

Kett makes custom classical and steel string guitars from his studio in Port Perry, Ontario. He's also a graphic artist who's been "living and working around Linux" since 1996. But Kett really jumped into the "ecosystem" about six months ago through his patronage at the linuxcaffe coffee shop and Linux Internet café in Toronto.

Recently, Kett had an idea for a travel guitar. "It would have an iPod running Linux plugged in, that would allow me to record the music that was played on it." He shared the idea with David Patrick, the proprietor of the linuxcaffe, and through some brainstorming came up with the idea for an "open source" electric guitar -- designed from the ground up by community consensus and fitted with Linux technology. "We hashed out ideas about what the ultimate guitar would be -- running a full Linux operating system and with all the capabilities of a recording studio."

Patrick, a guitar lover himself, has been the major idea contributor to the project so far. "When Mark suggested that he could build an electric guitar with an onboard CPU, the idea caught on with several musicians and Linux programmers, and even a couple of people specializing in embedded systems," he says. "This seemed to capture the imagination of both computer geeks and music geeks."

The guitar's touch screen interface will take the place of an effects box and a mixer, allowing on-the-fly changes and pre-programmed routines. It will also record whatever the guitar plays, or an entire ensemble of instruments. "The screen will be placed in a convenient spot for the guitarist to make any changes," says Kett.

One of the ideas currently in consideration is to include multiple USB slots on the guitar. "Imagine riffing out a wailin' solo, then yanking the USB stick and walking away with the recording," Patrick says. "We're even talking about auto tuning and re-tuning using both digital and mechanical means."

Kett and Patrick are pleased with the response to the Linux Guitar Project. "It's been very positive," Kett says. "First with a tilted head, then with a smile, then a rolling of the eyes."

Patrick counters. "I would say the eye-rolling is mostly from our non-geek friends, who only hear 'bla bla bla guitar bla bla bla Linux,'" he says. "Our musician/technician friends eyes typically widen in amazement when they think about a guitar that could be self-recording, self-tuning, and process unlimited audio effects while driving MIDI. The possibilities are mind-boggling."

The guitar will be standalone, with no desktop interface needed. "The Linux will be low-latency audio processing only," Patrick says, "and if we can do most of the audio processing in hardware, on a single-board computer, then the CPU only needs to move files around and needn't be that powerful."

Kett says for now, they're not planning to mass produce the guitar, but if Linux Guitar 1.0 is successful, they'll look into the possibility of making more. "This project will succeed only if it sparks the involvement of our community, and hopefully it will bring the idea of community to more people."

Patrick also hopes to get more people involved in the pre-production phase. "If we can keep the project wide open, and the potential of the guitar is compelling enough to get some real collaboration, we'll learn a bunch and have some fun. If that results in a new hybrid super Tux-powered guitar, all the better."

The Linux Guitar project is soliciting your ideas. To see prototype illustrations, read about current ideas, and add your own, visit the project at LinuxGuitar.org.

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